Science in Christian Perspective



The Spirituality of Teilhard de Chardin: 
An Evangelical Critique
Terry A. Ward
2207 Thunder Ridge Blvd.
Apt. 2-A
Cedar Falls, Iowa 50613

From: JASA 34 (June 1982):

"Teilhard de Chardin was a great evolutionary thinker . . . he was at the same time a mystic with a vision as great as St. Augustine's" (Jones 1969; p. 15)

... the greater part ... is nonsense, tricked out by a variety of tedious metaphysical conceits. . ." (Medawar 1961; p.99)

Such is the impact of Teilhard de Chardin that his work and life can be considered as equal to Augustines' or simply dismissed as sheer nonsense. This paper provides an evangelical assessment of the spirituality of Teilhard, especially as his conceptions of spirituality impinge upon questions of theological orthodoxy.

The relevant background of Teilhard's life is relatively simple. Trained in the Jesuit tradition, Teilhard was professionally a paleontologist of some distinction and with a minor detour as an ambulance corpsman in World War One, spent most of his life in the East. It is in the East that he made his paleontological contributions; especially significant is his work in the discovery and description of Peking Man (Sinanthropus). Due to the heterodcK nature of his writings, he was forbidden to publish his nomscientific material during his life and so his writings come to m after his death in 1955.

The key to understanding Teilhard lies in an understanding of his conception of the natural order and specifically his philosophical explanations of the evolutionary process.

Extrapolating from the purely scientific level (i.e., micro- and macro-level evolution), Teilhard considers four steps of "genesis(Teilhard 1960). The first step of this grand evolutionary process is the transition from matter to life (morphogenesis to biogenesis)The second step in the process is from life to man (biogenesis to anthropogenesis). Going beyond mere biological analysi& Teilhard posits a third stage of evolution, the movement from mar to Christ (anthropogenesis to Christogenesis). Finally, Teilha-_ posits as the final stage, the "Omega Point" where all will be "Christified."

The Teilhardian synthesis is basically a model of directed evolution. Teilhard states this "directedness" in the following manner. "The delight of the divine milieu ... is that it can assume an ever increasing intensity around us" (Teilhard 1960; p. 132). Such a schema has great appeal to the modern, Western mind and in fact even as secular an evolutionist as T. Dobzhansky can consider Teilhard's system as "fitting the requirements of our time" and as providing a "ray of hope" for the 20th century. (Dobzhansky 1962; p. 348).

The question remains however whether or not the Teilhardian proposals can be considered as biblical or evangelical. Before considering this, several other main points of Teilhard's thought need be considered.

Firstly, he considers Christianity as "nothing more nor less than a 'phylum of love' within nature" (Teilhard 1960; p. I "' A second main emphasis in Teilhard's thought is a conception of evil as moral failure rather than of sin as a condition of our e xistence (Teithard 1960; p. 85). A final major theme in Teilhard's thought is his unique idea concerning the cross and atonement. Brifly ac cording to Teilhard, the concept of a cross of expiation is rep a by the idea of a "cross of evolution" with Christ conceived as the apex of man's spiritual evolution (Teilhard 1971; p. 216f.).

Barbour raises two cogent objections to Teilhard's science (Barbour 1966): Is sociology really reducible to biology as Teilhard does in his four-fold scheme of evolution? Do we truly want to advance a substantially Lamarckian view of evolution for the currently prevailing non-Lamarckian view? Finally, Barbour contends that Teilhard's emphasis upon the "incompleteness" of God implies a non-contingent universe and hence a non-sovereign God (Barbour 1966; pp. 404-405). Thus, from a purely scientific perspective, Teilhard's synthesis appears to be seriously flawed. However, to be fair, it must be admitted that this analysis of Teilhard's is not really a scientific one but a philosophical one.

The first major objection to Teilhard's theology arises in the discussion of the nature of evil. Teilhard conceives evil as a failing and not as a condition (Teilhard 1962; p. 269). This, combined with his evolutionary optimism (even in the face of two world wars!), produces a mistaken view of the nature of sin. As Berkhof phrases it, Teilhard's "uncritical extrapolation from his biological-anthropological categories could not have done justice to the great realities of sin and reconciliation" (Berkhof 1979; pp. 174-175). Also, as Bloesch points out, this conception of evil as finitude is common to the mystical tradition and contrary to the biblical emphasis upon sin as active rebellion against God (Bloesch 1980; pp. 105-106).

A second major theological difficulty encountered in Teilhard's thought concerns the question of the sufficiency of Christ. The basic evangelical perspective is that there exists a chasm between God and man and that man's inability to repair this break necessitates an historical mediator, Christ. Further, this act is complete in and of itself; we add nothing to it (Bloesch 1980; p. 101). Teilhard, on the other hand, argues that "Christ is not yet fully formed" (Teilhard 1961; p. 133) and we are to "plunge into God" (Teilhard 1961; p.133) to become united in creative "union with the Eucharistic Cosmic Christ" (Teilhard 1960; pp. 131-132).

Here we see a third misplaced emphasis in the thought of Teilhard: the "Eucharistic Cosmic Christ." While no evangelical could or would deny the cosmic implications of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the emphasis of Teilhard is more on the "idea" of Christ than upon the Palestinian rabbi of the New Testament. At one point for example, Teilhard refers to the "living and conquering idea of the universal Christ" (Mooney 1966; p. 73).

In this he betrays a marked docetic tendency. For example, he argues in his "Mass on the World" that he "shall rise beyond mere symbols to the pure majesty of the real, and I shall offer you" (Teilhard 1979; pp. 119-134), or, in the criticism by J. Houston, "Teilhard makes much of the cosmic Christ, but has little to say of the incarnate Christ" (Houston 1980; p. 170). This docetic strain of thought is also evident in Teilhard's concern for matter. For him, "true repose consists in renouncing one's own self ... my life is now possessed by this 'disinterest' " (Teilhard 1962; p. 160). Berkhof again criticizes Teilhard on this point of matter and spirit when he argues that Teilhard's understanding is predominantly Greek and not biblical (Berkhof 1979; p. 536).

Thus, from the theological perspective, we can see several flaws within the Teilhardian analysis. Firstly, his emphasis upon sin as failing and his belief in evolutionary process and progress tends to a non-biblical monism and an unwarranted optimism concerning human effort. Concerning his optimism, Kung writes evolu tion still seems very far from the omega point and often even to lead away from it" (Kung 1976; p. 39). This criticism is most cogent if we are to constantly proclaim the evangelical doctrine of total depravity. Rust also criticizes Teilhard's conception of sin as simply a concern for sin as a "statistical" rather than as an existen tial phenomena (Rust 1969; p. 175).

A second reservation that must be made from the evangelical perspective is that Teilhard's "co-creative union" of man and God is not biblically correct. We must rather maintain that true prayer is "God calling out to humanity and calling for a response of obedience" (Bloesch 1980; p. vii) and not a "mysticism of co-creative union" (Martin 1968; p. 112).

Finally, we must resist the Greek and neo-Platonic emphases of Teilhard. Matter and soul are not separated and our goal is not to escape the physical matrix of our body as in Teilhard. No, the evangelical insistence upon the resurrection of the body disallows such a dichotomy. Again, as Berkhof reminds us, "Teilhard's understanding of matter as the matrix from which spirituality will eventually escape ... appears not to be in line with the way in which the biblical thinking constantly combines body and soul" (Berkhof 1979; p. 536).

Before considering the more specifically spiritual matters which Teilhard discusses, it is useful to consider a bit of Teilhard's religious background. Grau argues, and I think correctly, for the importance and centrality of Jesuit thought and practice for the life and spirituality of Teilhard (Grau 1976). He argues that the central theme of this type of spirituality is an "activecontemplative mentality" (Gran 1976; pp. 45-47). Thus, he argues that a constant theme in Ignatian spirituality (and thus present in Teilhard) is an "effort directed toward prayerful assimilation of the human culture" (Grau 1976; p. 46).

With these thoughts in mind, we can now consider the spirituality of Teilhard. Briefly, Grau distinguishes several stages in the daily prayer life of Teilhard. Firstly, the practitioner is to place himself in the presence of God. Secondly, the individual is to compare his life with his ideals and finally after this comparison is to carry out corrective measures (Grau 1976; pp. 83-85).

This essential inwardness of the Teilhardian spirituality is also evident in Teilhard's own writings. As an example, consider his previously mentioned "disinterest" as in his letter, ". . true repose consists in renouncing one's own self . . . my life is now possessed by this 'disinterest' " (Teilhard 1962; p. 160). Also, in a letter to Abbe Breuil, Teilhard states this inward orientation more explicitly, "The more I look into myself, the more I find myself possessed by the conviction that it is only the science of Christ running through all things" (Teilhard 1962; pp. 85-86).

In a sense then, this Teilhardian orientation is basically an extrapolation of the early Church's concept of the "divinization of man" to the eventual "divinization" of all of creation at the Omega Point. This inwardness extends also to Teilhard's conception of Christian sainthood wherein one is a saint "who Christianizes in himself all the human of his own time" (Cuenot 1965; p. 403). At this point, the evangelical insistence upon the essentiality of transcendence is virtually lost.

Finally, Teilhard overemphasizes the mystical, ahistorical themes to the detriment of the evangelical affirmation of the historical nature of revelation. Our previous comments on the "Eucharistic Cosmic Christ" are relevant in this connection also. With this emphasis upon the "idea" of Christ, rather than on Jesus Christ, Teilhard adds an emphasis upon the "idea" of humanity and little stress upon the individual man (Schwarz 1979; p. 122). Teilhard is in conflict with the New Testament interest constantly shown in real people, and not merely "humanity."

How then are we to assess the person and phenomena generated by Teilhard de Chardin? Is he the "paradigmatic Christian and mystic of the utmost probity" (Cunningham 1980; p. 54) or, is he an important, but fundamentally theologically incorrect modern thinker?

We cannot agree with Cunningham that "Teilhard should be a saint for the nobility of his attempt to be faithful to the Gospel" (Cunningham 1980; p. 55). Mere goodwill does not make a saint! Rather, we must conclude that in many theological areas Teilhard is in no way biblical or evangelical.

However, we must also contend that his stress upon the dynamism of the Christian faith is an important and essential antidote to a sterile and stagnant propositional orthodoxy: a position conservative evangelicals are ever prone to stress. Also, his insistence upon creation and the "goodness" therein, while extreme, is a useful counterpoint for the common denigration of thw world or the common anti-intellectualism of the more fundamentalist of our brethren.


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